The Importance Of The Script

There is an old adage in business that goes like this. “What is the most important element of any business?”

  1. Location
  2. Management
  3. Production
  4. Employees

The answer is location, location. location.  If no one can find you then no one will do business with you.  It gets down to marketing and how to promote your business.

So how does this relate to indie film making?  Let me propose another question.  What is the most important part of making a movie?

The answer is Story.  Tell a great story.  Make it great.  The best way to address the location element of movie making is to have a great story that people talk about.  A great story gets great reviews and it can build from there.  Look at the marketing dollars spent on Superman Vs Batman.  It had a huge opening weekend and then it died a quick box office death because the story didn’t work for most of the audience.

Huge Script Tip

The best way to write a great story is to be good at writing a story.  The best way to get good at writing is practice.  Spend an hour every day working on your story.  Make an hour every day.  Come up with one new idea.  Write one page.  In a year if you wrote one page per day you would have 365 pages completed.  That is enough for 4 scripts.

If you are just starting out the biggest suggestion I can make.  The one I want to drill in your head is to just write.  Get three scripts done.  Don’t dwell on making it great just get the first draft done.  Write one page a day.  Go back and look at your beat sheet.  Rewrite your logline.  Build up one of your characters back story. Add a new set peace to the story.  Just keep moving forward and write 3 scripts.  Get in the practice of cranking out quality story.  Get those three scripts done then work on a great one.  It takes at least 3 scripts before you have something worth sharing.  Then you can go back and rewrite.

One of the biggest mistakes new film makers make is that they focus so much on their current story that when it succeeds they don’t have anything else to push forward when the coals are hot.  By the time they complete their 2nd script they are yesterdays news.  Don’t make that mistake.  Have a few scripts.   It also gives you the ability when you are pitching a story to find out what kind of story the producers are looking for.  Having more than one story in your wallet gives you the opportunity to pitch the right kind of story to the right person.

So in summary please just start writing.  If you have a story idea take an hour today.  Go sit down at the coffee shop and get it started.  See if you can get it on the page first draft in 90 days.  Then go on to your 2nd script.  If you have a great script and you are in pre-production.  Take an hour today and start your second script.  Do it today.  Find that hour.  Trust me it’s a skill that will give you a major competitive advantage over the competetion.

Save The Cat

This week on Indie Film Hustle IFH 071, Alex featured one of my favorite books of all time, “Save The Cat.” As always I try to comment on the current podcast. Two things I found really interesting was the talk about common mistakes writers make.

1) Too much detail. The is referring to the descriptions of the action. We all know not to include camera direction but detailing every single element makes the script take longer to read and it kills the creativity. I always say the most scary is what you don’t see. You imagination can always envision something more scary than what is on screen. Same concept goes for descriptions. I mean that if you don’t leave anything to the imagination you kill the creativity of interpreting your story. When you let the ready have some creativity it makes the story a more interesting read. I know I personally like to use a lot of analogies in describing. Compare the situation or set to something that the reader should be familiar with.

2) Characters based on actors you have seen in other movies not based on people you know. It’s a lot easier to write a character using someone you know than someone you have seen on the screen. I completely disagree with this. You need to create characters in a way that you know them as well as someone you know. I think a lot of writers are too lazy to do that properly. Take a look at Syd Fields and his 4 elements of character. Every one in your script should have these elements.
1 – A point of view
2 – Something they want to achieve or a goal
3 – A dramatic need
4 – They must change or go through a transformation

The interview was with Jose Silerio one of Blake Snyder’s main guys, who was an early student and is still spreading the gospel of Save The Cat. He told a slightly different version about the history of the beat sheet than I understood. My understanding is that Blake came up with the beat sheet originally as a tool to prepare himself for pitches at the Studios. He noticed a pattern of the questions he would get asked and make the beat sheet to refresh himself before meetings.

The real reason for a beat sheet is as Alex referred to it as the “Tent Poles” of a story. I use a beat sheet a few times while writing a script. It helps keep me on track and it helps pin point problems or issues I have developing the story. The fact remains that Hollywood as an institution has probably become to dependent on the beat sheet. Production people use it probably more than writers. A lot of writers feel that it inhibits their creativity making it too much of a fill in the blank process. I disagree. I find that as the story develops and as rewrites are done that beat sheets need to be updated. The main thing to recognize is that pretty much all the great scripts hit these beats. From big budget movies like Star Wars to indie films like Whiplash. It goes back to how humans digest story. It helps make for the most satisfying story telling experience.

They also talked about loglines. I believe that this is key to selling, creating and producing movies. I like to make sure that my logline or what I like to say is my script mission statement still applies as I go through the rewrites and creating process. You need a great logline to sell the project. You need it to get the movie sold, attach great actors, crew and even editors. They are important is being able to articulate what the story is about in a manageable way when talking about it.

Check out the indie film hustle podcast on itunes or go to their website to download the mp3.

Lloyd Kaufman

Unfortunately there was a hosting outrage and I didn’t have current backup of the site so I lost a lot of the blog posts I have made about Indie Film Hustle. But to recap I’m using this site to blog about their podcast and if you haven’t listened to them yet and you are making indie films I implore you to stop reading right now and go give them a listen on their website or on iTunes.

Indie Film Hustle – Podcast 065: Lloyd Kaufman & Troma

Real interesting episode. Lloyd is a real character. The kind of guy you want to associate with if you have the opportunity. He knows how to find talent. James Gunn started at Troma films. You would think the studies would hunt through the talent over at Troma for guys to lead their tent projects. After the disaster of Batman Vs Superman, there should be a reminder that there is no substitute for making good movies. That movie had the potential to do twice the business that it did. Imagine if it was half as entertaining as dead pool.

I must admit I never heard of Troma prior to listening to Indie Film Hustle. So I’m looking forward to at least watching Toxic Avengers. I actually have called a few people toxic avengers in the past because they had a toxic personality. So Talk about high concept.

They discussed How Troma markets to the Cannes. Using low budget marketing stunts to gain attention without spending big dollars. Lloyd wrote a book about that. He stated in the podcast that he thought it was his best book. But it’s a good reminder that you need to be a marketing guru to succeed in the business. No matter what your doing. You market yourself to get investors. You market the movie to get cast and crew. You market the movie when it’s finished to get people to watch it. Marketing is part of the game and if your indie, you have to think outside the box.

How To Make An Indie Film

The answer to this question is just do it.  I could get into a long rant of suggestions.  Let’s start with the most important thing.  Have a great screen play. How do you know it’s great.  Get coverage.  Get as many people as you can to read it.  If they tell you it’s good then ask them for $25.  They are pre-paying for a ticket for the premier and a dvd. If they don’t give it to you.  you know they are lying or they are broke as a skunk.  We will post more information on getting script coverage.

So now you have a great script.   You want to be sure to avoid these pitfalls.

  1. No FX required (special effects cost money – time – energy )
  2. No animals (to do this safe costs money)
  3. No kids (kids can work only limited number of hours)
  4. No period films (wardrobe and set design too expensive)
  5. Limited number of locations (company movies require a lot of resources)
  6. Limited number of actors

The great Dov Simmons says, “Film a stage play.”  This is sound advice.  You could even rehearse it and perform it as a stage play before you film. This gives you the ability to test out your actors.  The real reason is because it won’t get too expensive to film.  Start small.  Prove you can make a great movie without spending a ton of money.

Remember that great movies tell a great story.  Other important things like acting, camera movies, perfect lighting are all forgiven if you have a awesome sound and an awesome story. Never under estimate the importance of sound.

How Much Do Locations Cost

On low budget films the biggest cost drivers are generally locations.  Think about it this way.  If you are a normal budget film with $5 million dollars.  You film 3 pages per day and each day is a different location.  That would be lets say 30 locations.  You need a coffee shop, restaurant, boutique ect. Kick the owner $1,000 for the day work around their normal hours so they don’t need to be closed the entire day 9 out of 10 establishments are going to take the extra money. For argument sack you have to comp them the cost of lost business.  So let’s double it.  You are looking at $60k a tiny line item in the budget.

Now lets say you use a sound stage.  You have to build the set.  Do you think you could do reproduce most locations for let’s say $4k.  Now you are $120k.  A very small portion of the budget.  But if you are working on a shoe string budget of maybe $100k for the entire production, this becomes significant.

Looks at your other expenses.  Renting equipment. Craft services. Transportation ect.  These things are not going to cost as much. Even a big name star.  There are plenty of well known names you can get on your project for even $50k.  They might only give you a few days for that rate but think about what percentage that is compared to locations.

The smart thing to do is come up with a limited number of locations that don’t cost that much money.  Better yet how about locations you can use for free or almost free.  If you limit the number of locations to say 10 locations.  If those locations don’t cost that much you can figure your budget accordingly.

Think location in the concept.  Look at how location plays into your plot.  You need a great story.  Think of a great story in terms of location and you can make your film on most any size budget if you plan it right.  We once filmed an entire movie in a garage on a green screen.  Granted the director was an editor by trade and had experience keying out green screens. The post work didn’t have to get added to the budget.  He had a friend donate use of their garage on weekends for 2 months.  We filmed weekends on a green screen.  A few cans of chroma key paint costs $100.  We did spend one weekend going to a few locations.  One was an apartment complex pool which we did gorilla style. one of the actors lived in the complex.  The other locations all exterior park kind of stuff.  To this day it is my favorite of all the film projects I have been a part of.

Sync Sound

One of the most important things when making a film is not the most important to production value is sound.  Nothing comes before story but after a great script sound is so important.

Note:Sync sound first

The first thing you need to do is listen to the sound.  Be sure you have clean sound.  These days a lot of people are using DSLR cameras and recording sound on a digital recording device. The first thing you have to do is sync the sound.  Editors are always going to ask you is the sound synced.  Start with getting it synced and do it right away.  Sync is before you watch dailies.

Take notes and a rolling todo list for folly.  In fact you might want to even record the folly as you film.  If you have worked on a film set you probably remember everyone stopping and the sound guy saying get room tones.  And everyone is quit for about 30 seconds.  The room tones are used to mix in on a loop to just blend the background noise.  You don’t notice it when you watch but it’s there.

The other thing you can do as you film.  To help with folly is take 5 minutes after filming each scene and re-record the audio.  If someone falls on the floor or sets something down.  Repeat the action but this time get the mic close to the sounds in the scene to get the folly stuff so you don’t need to go back and match it.  Get something to work with as you film.  While you are on set with the like elements. There are going to be cases when you are going to watch to redo these sounds because the actual sound isn’t as good as if you fake them to create the actual sound that works better.

And remember when picking locations to keep sound in mind. Can you control the HVAC?  Can it be switched off easy.  Are you in a restaurant with fans and ice machines that run and make noise that can’t be turned off.  NEVER FORGET TO UNPLUG REFRIGERATORS WHEN YOU FIML IN A KITCHEN. Be sure windows are shut to limit outside noises like cars or dogs or birds.  Check lights that might emit some kind of hum.Be sure cords are not touching any electronics that could add a hum to the lines.

3 Most Important Skills

adobe

Making a movie without money is probably one of the toughest things in the world to do. I spent years working on scripts and learning how to write.  Obviously from the typos on this blog it’s not one of my natural skills.  If your like me and many others there is probably nothing else you would rather do. So I wanted to talk about the path to the easiest way to do this.

  1. Learn how to use Premier.

In the old days the cut films using negatives.  The editor would start by cutting together the establishing shots.  This would be the first cut.  Basically it was the entire movie with just the wide master shots.  Then he would make another cut of the film editing in the mid-shots. Then the closeups or tighter shots would be added.  And the process worked like this every week completing a pass of the film.

At some point Hollywood switched over to linear editing using Avid systems.  This was expensive but it helped to speed up the process.  Then Apple came out with Final Cut which became an industry standard until they decided to turn it into a consumer software program as more people got iphones and started making tons of home movies.  So the industry switched back to avid.  While there is nothing wrong with avid, amateurs mainly use Premier.

There are tons of tutorials online.  Adobe even has their own set of guides on how to use the software which are very good.  The software costs about $50 month or less if you find a promo or are a student.  It runs great on my mac air lap top even while editing HD.

Learning how to edit will do a few things.  The main thing is that a good editor can turn lemons into gold. The time and cost of post production will cause your fill to never get completed.  It’s literally impossible to get someone to work cheap and do a complete competent job.  The amount of work involved and the time required just works against human nature.  If you are making movies without money, my best advice is to plan on doing post yourself.

There is no better way to learn how to make a movie than start with post production.  If you want to film a feature start by doing an 8 minute short of the feature.  This gives you the best chance to really test the actors to see if they are right for the film.  In fact I shoot a few shorts of my feature before I would move in and film the entire thing. during the process you will learn which shots work and which don’t.  You will learn how to direct actors and instruct your crew.  You will learn what you need to do to be more organized and make the process run smoother.  Practice makes perfect so just take action.

2 – Learn How To Write Scripts

The first thing to do is read scripts.  Find all the movies that influence you and read as many as you can. You will learn what a good script is by reading this.  It will make the process a lot easier.  The time you spend reading scripts will save you time later trying to figure out how to get your script right. Now keep in mind when you write that you need to come up with a story that is simple and easy to film.  If you have a great idea for a movie that requires props, FX, kids, animals or chase scenes then save that for a future project.  When you make it the first thing people will ask you is what is your next project or what else do you have.  You need to grab the momentum and move forward.  You simple have to have at least 3 other projects to pitch.

At the end of the day a film can only be as good as the story.  If you don’t start with a great story you are going to end up with junk because it never ends up as good as it was originally.  Even if you are great at post and you do a great rewrite during the edit, you probably had to make compromises while filming or certain things just ended up not working.

The other reason this step is so important is because the process all starts here.  Without a script to film you really have nothing.

3 – Take Action

If you want to make movies then make movies.  Write a script, Film a short and crank out some stuff.  Throw up a bunch of things on youtube.  You are going to need examples of your work anyway.  Spend an hour a day working on your script.  Spend a weekend every month or two filming a short.  Volunteer to help other film makers on their projects.  The best way to find a cast and crew is be getting involved with other projects.

Set some goals.  One hour of writing per day will get you a first draft in less than 3 months.  Filming a movie is going to take a few weeks of hard work.  A few weeks of pre-production and a year of post production.   Time goes by and a year turns into 5 years and then a decade.  Life happens.  There is no better time than the present.  If you don’t start right now, the reality is that you might never get around to it.

If you are working full time get in the habit or waking up early and having a cup of coffee before work everyday.  Or take 10 minutes each coffee break to write something. You need to schedule it into your life style.

11:34 The Movie

 

For the first post I figured the best place to start is to tell you about my current project.  I started 2015 going into pre-production of a feature film.  I set a max budget of $10k.  I told everyone that it was no budget but I had saved up about 10k and I decided to just get started.

The previous year I had taken a local class on directing actors.  It was taught by a local film maker and acting coach.  He charged $100 a month for a 3 month course that he taught in his living room. I figured based on previous projects that I needed to get better performances from my actors so I put a lot of effort into learning everything I could about directing actors.  My conclusion is there are no bad actors just bad casting.  I decided to hire the teacher as my casting director and started the audition process.

The first thing I learned was that it’s pretty hard to find quality actors willing to work for no pay.  It’s even tougher to find actors that can act and are the right actor for  specific parts.  At times I wished I had actors and then wrote parts for them specifically. I even contemplated rewriting the story to fit some of the actors I wanted to work with.

The script was an interesting process.  I had a writing partner I was working with.  I had pitched the idea of a ghost story caused by the murder of an innocent stranger that ended up buried in the walls of a garage. My writing partner had the idea of 11:34.  We would have haunts every night at almost midnight.  The reasoning is that was when the murder took place and that if you flipped the numbers upside down it spelled hE:ll.

Pretty good high concept project. We spend months developing the story.  We wanted interesting characters.  At times we probably got away from the scares and focused too much on character development.  We rewrote the treatment and scene outline numerous times.  He moved back home for the summer and then returned to go to school about an hour away.  We still tried to meet hoping to finish the script over Christmas break when he would be in town.  Things started out well we meet every day and started getting it on the page.  The problem was the dialogue just wanted great and he eventually disappeared on me. A few months went by and I got the idea that I could turn the treatment into an ebook and put it up on kindle to see what kind of feedback the concept got. I set aside an hour everyday to write.  I knocked out about 50 pages and showed it to my new writing partner.  He took a look at it and was bored.  It had the tone of a film not a book.  I am not an avid reader.  I prefer non-fiction and the last fiction story I read was the Green Mile by Steven King.  If you are familiar with that it was a series of novelettes which was more to my liking.

The nice thing was that by writing the novel version of the story I really got to know my characters so I started writing the script myself.  I came up with a few changes while doing the novel and one day I felt like writing so I started the script myself from the beginning. It had probably been two years I was involved with the story and I ended up knocking out a fairly decent script in about a week.  I knew the story forwards and backwards.  When I was finished I messaged my writing partner who I hadn’t talked to in ages to see if he would take a look.  He had ignored my messages but the script got a response.  He had some good ideas and was pretty impressed.  So I embarked on a few rewrites.  I always say writing is rewriting.

Back to pre-production.  After the directing class ended one of my piers was filming a movie.  She did a Seed and Spark campaign to raise the money and started principle photography.  She was an interesting sharp women and I donated some of my equipment to her production.  That’s the nice thing about Seed and Spark you can donate time or items instead of money. For film crowd funding it’s the best platform.  You should check it out.  I wish I had used it on my project to raise some money.  As she got closer to finishing her project she lost some of her crew and messaged me to see if I could help on set a few days.  It’s tough for my to turn down the opportunity to be on a film set.  The problem is I’m a director/writer/producer and those departments was not what she needed.  Anyway I helped with some grunt work and lighting.  The thing that I didn’t realize at the time was that I made a few new friends who would later come on board to help me with my project.

During the casting process my casting director asked me if I needed some money for the film.  He had a connection who he had told about the project who was very interested in getting involved.  This guy had a few investors who wanted to invest in horror films, so I sent over the script.  The guy contacted me and loved the story.  We started having meetings about the production and put together a business plan that outlined out the budget for the investor.  This is probably the main reason I didn’t do any crowd funding.  After a few weeks he started to ask about how much coverage I got on the script.  I had all my writing partners take a look at it.  Keep in mind I have been writing scripts with different people for about 15 years so my guess is that I had about 10 eyes plus some various friends and family.  The point here is that this is not real coverage.  He wanted a professional script reader to take a look and attach that to the proposal to the investor.  To make a long story short the one person he had coverage from found a lot of flaws with the story.  The flaws I agree with but they are all by design because of budget issues.  Ultimately we parted ways.

I had some money saved up and because I was doing planning based on a budget I ended up spending more than was prudent.  Looking back at things I wish I used all the money for post production.  I paid a few crew guys and gave the actors a small token amount of money.  This was not money well spent.  I should have  worked with people who I didn’t have to pay because when you don’t pay rate you don’t get experienced professionals you end up giving people money who should be paying you for the opportunity of the experience they will gain. People have to pay rent so C’est la vie.

We did a script read and I opted to avoid rehearsals because I wanted fresh performances.  Looking back at the process I wish we had spent 2 weeks doing some rehearsals.  My last film I did rehearse and I felt it just confused the actors and that most of what we talked about they forgot when they got on set. I think it would have helped the performances to really run through the story a few times from start to finish.  So they had a better sense of the characters development at different points in time during the story.

You know the saying what can go wrong will go wrong.   Well the lead actress had her husband leave her after the first week of filming.  The crew didn’t listen to my instruction about moving camera and basically did what they wanted.  As the leader I should have fired people or replaced them.  The problem with a feature is there are so many moving parts that when you have no budget you wear to many hats.

One of the main things we talked about in the directing class was building relationships with the cast.  The idea is that the more comfortable they are the better they perform.  The same thing goes for the crew.  Also you have to be comfortable with them.  I missed the boat on these things. I take full responsibility.  Ultimately the director is the captain of the ship. I had basically a cast and crew of students.  On one of my previous projects I referred to the actors as amateur actors and they didn’t go over well.  What I meant was non-sag.  In my opinion there is a big difference between sag and non-sag.  The reason is simply the number of hours of experience.  In order to get into the union you have to have a certain number of days of call sheets.  This is the difference between students/amateurs and professionals.  Another point of view individuals making a living in the business vs doing no budget non pay work.  I myself do not make a living as a film maker so I too am an amateur so I might be too lenient in this regard because I don’t want to feel like hypocrite.

When I sat down with the editor I saw a lot of things that I specifically instructed them not to do.  Another mistake I made was not insisting on watching the footage as we filmed.  I was trying to watch the actors and focus on story and performance. I wish I had run the camera. For now on I’m running the camera.  It’s silly to waste time and crew on that when the director is really the one who should be behind the camera.  My editor said something to me that proves my point.  He showed me a specific scene that he said was much easier to put together.  He wanted to know if we had a different crew that day.  We actually did.  I ran the camera on that scene. Let me tell you what I did.  I moved the camera 15% after each take.  I did two takes then moved the camera.  It’s really as simple as that.  You get coverage to start.  Then you punch in.  Then you move the camera 15% in each direction.  The reason is that when you move only 15% you do not need to do a new lighting setup.  Remember that tip when you film.  It’s not talked about much.

The last thing I want to say about the project is that you start with the story you envision.  Then you end up with the story on the page.  You make changes for budget.  Then you film the movie and you get a different story.  The post production edit affects story more based on what you got in the can. If you don’t start with an amazing story your going to have problems.  At George Clooney famously said, “You start with an A script then  during the process it goes down from there.”

Get a script and make it great. At the end of the day the story is the most important aspect of the process. If you want to succeed you need to figure out what a great story is and how to make it great.